As much as this year’s SXSW Interactive conference in Austin, Texas has been about exploring technology’s dark side — or at least the government's use of it — there have been a few tech breakouts.
The biggest of these is wearables, and Shaquille O’Neil, the baskeball star-turned-entrepreneur, was the (literally) biggest celeb promoting these tiny computers with sensors worn on the body.
Oh, and if one might doubt his credentials, well, he was one of the original investors in Google back in 1998. “Ever since then I've considered myself a geek and a techie,” he said during a panel with Rick Valencia, the vice president of Qualcomm, one of the main investors behind the most mainstream wearable FitBit.
Shaq says he uses the popular FitBit to measure his daily 10,000-step exercise regimen, and compete with friends and family members, which is also what has helped the device go mainstream. (Further evidence: My wife can’t figure out the TV remotes in our house, but she's never without her FitBit bracelet.)
“Treadmills only give you certain readings, but wearables give you everything,” he evangelized. “It gives you the information you need to try and fulfill your destiny for that day.”
He understandably added that he'd like to see this technology come in bigger sizes. “I would like to see extra large or even XXL, the bigger you are the more you need to be active. I had to buy two, cut one, then homeboy hooked it up to make it fit.”
But wearables go well beyond fancy-pants pedometers. Valencia discussed their potential for non-invasive insulin monitoring for diabetics, which would be hugely helpful to the growing numbers afflicted with adult-onset diabetes.
Toronto company Bionym was a finalist in the wearables stream of SXSW accelerators for its product Nymi, which uses your heart rate as your password and will be available to the consumer by late summer. (The winner was Skully Helmets, a “rear-view mirror on steroids” for motorcyclists.)
“It’s a wristband that authenticates your identity based on your unique cardiac rhythms,” Bionym CEO Karl Martin explained. “And it only works for you." With your electrocardiogram as unique a biometric as a fingerprint or an iris, this Bluetooth-enabled wristband can access computer accounts and physical locks making remembering all your insanely complicated passwords or even losing house keys a thing of the past.
“Today there’s password managers and we're likely going to launch in conjunction with the password manager where we [Nymi] become the master key. But where the future is going is actually passwords will be completely gone."
Bionym CEO Karl Martin
Martin says that wearables have been growing for four or five years, but is just now crossing over to the point that “now your grandma and grandpa know what it’s about.”
“I think this is a turning point for this space because people with a broad range of backgrounds, not just tech geeks, are interested in this stuff,” he says. “I think this kind of an event is like the litmus test to say that it's arrived for real."
That would make it different from last year’s SXSW breakout technology, 3D printers, which not have yet to reach the average Joe – in fact, most folks don’t even know they exist.
“I think a lot of companies are focusing on making it very accessible," Martin says. "The problem with 3D printing is it’s very cool, but it's not very accessible. So this is accessible in terms of price and in terms of usability and I think being wearable forces you to think about usability, because if it’s not, you’ll be laughed out of a room.”
The technology also includes Toronto company InteraXon’s Muse, a brainwave-sensing headband, and Wearable Solar clothing that could charge phones. Google, for its part, announced they’d be releasing an Android-based dev kit for wearables and are planning a smart watch to go along with Google Glass.
The biggest issue the technology is facing is "body real estate." After all, how many wristbands can one wear before looking like a tween girl wearing jellies?
“You’ve got limited space,” Martin admits, adding that while the device will be released as a wristband, they're also considering it in other forms, like a necklace, earrings or belt buckles.
He also says that Toronto is becoming a leader in the industry, with a number of companies in the area, as well as Waterloo.
“There's a great ecosystem starting in Toronto. ... There’s just this natural critical mass and now, because of that, people are coming to Toronto for wearable tech. It's pretty exciting."
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